5 Rules for Requesting a Letter of Recommendation via Email
by Ben Frederick MD
on August 11, 2013
When I was applying to medical school, asking for letters of recommendation gave me a big headache. Unfortunately, whether you are shooting for med school, dental school, PA school, or any other kind of health profession, requesting letters of recommendation is a necessary evil that you must endure.
"Hi Professor X, um... my name is John. I was just wondering if possibly, maybe, you might be able to write me a letter of recommendation. I'm applying to medical school and, um.. and they asked me to get a letter from some science professors. So do you think that maybe you could write me one?"
That is a situation to avoid.
First of all, let's face facts... you and I are awkward. It's almost a prerequisite for acceptance to medical school or any other health professions. Luckily for us awkward people, email has become ubiquitous and is now socially acceptable for something like asking for a letter of rec.
You may have been advised to request letters in person or over the phone in order to make a more personal connection. However, I like to create a more controlled environment in order to minimize the pain and awkwardness. Making first contact with your professors via email prevents you from screwing it up!
Second of all, it lets your professor consider the request on his or her own time. The last thing you want them to do is agree to write you a letter of rec because you put them on the spot and they just want you to go away.
But why? Isn't the point of asking for a letter, to get a letter?
Yes and no. You don't just want any old letter of recommendation. You want a GREAT letter. If the professor you are asking can't deliver on that, you don't want them anywhere near your application!
Rules for Requesting a Letter of Rec via Email
1. Keep It Short
Professors are very busy people. Like many busy people they are constantly battling their email inbox. The easiest way to be ignored is to start with a lengthy email full of unnecessary information and excruciating detail. You should remind yourself of the primary question and focus your email on that question alone. "Is this person willing to write me a letter of recommendation?"
The goal of the initial email is to get them to agree to write the letter, not to give them all the information they need in order to write it. You will need to write multiple follow up emails or (GASP!) meet in person to review your CV and personal statement once they agree to help you out.
2. Refresh Their Memory
It's a simple fact that you are more likely to get a positive response if your professor remembers who you are. It seems obvious right? Take a note from Groundhog Day's Ned Ryerson and elicit a memory of an interaction you had that makes you say, "BING!" and they'll say, "Oh yeah, I remember you."
If you don't have a BING! moment, skip to Rule #3 and really give them a good reason to help you.
3. Show Some Interest in Their Field
Your professor may be wondering why you chose to ask her. The best way to satisfy that curiosity is to address it in the initial email by saying something like this:
"Organic chemistry was a very challenging class for me, but the way you approached difficult subjects with practical demonstrations really helped me enjoy your lectures and learn the material."
You may have hated organic chemistry. You may still be having nightmares about your first day in lab. How could anyone devote their time to this? You may think that, but if you are requesting a letter from your organic chemistry professor, you better also think of something positive to say.
4. Be Assertive & Specific with Your Request
Your goal is not simply to get any old letter of recommendation. You want a GREAT recommendation. One of the worst things you can ask is, "Can you write me a letter of recommendation?" Of course they can! They are a college professor after all. Writing is in the job description. But that doesn't mean they will write you a worthwhile recommendation. Please commit this question to memory:
Would you be able to write me a STRONG letter of recommendation?
Don't mistake being assertive and specific with being cocky and demanding. That leads me to the next rule.
5. Don't Assume They Will Agree to Help You
The old saying goes, "When you assume something, you make an ass out of 'u' and 'me'." In the case of requesting a letter of recommendation, you are mostly just going to make an ass of yourself.
Don't write your initial email assuming that your professor will agree to write you a letter of recommendation. This is a favor for you and they are not obligated to agree to your demands. Your initial email should be in the form of a request that can be denied. If your professor doesn't think they can write you a strong letter of rec, then you want to give them an "out". Furthermore, you will look far better in their eyes if you ask them graciously for their help.
Ultimately you need to determine if email is the appropriate way for YOU to ask for a letter of recommendation. I have found it to be very effective for me and many people who have asked me for advice. If your request is accepted, you will definitely need to write some more follow up emails, talk on the phone, or meet in person. But the biggest hurdle is getting the "Yes." Because I'm such a nice guy, I've put together a few email templates that incorporate all the above rules.
Please leave your thoughts about requesting a letter of recommendation in the comments.